Dir. Dana Ben-Ari
Breastmilk represents a missed opportunity to illuminate a surprisingly divisive and widely misunderstood subject. Unfortunately, Dana Ben-Ari’s documentary is too unfocused to either attract a general audience or satisfy those who would most likely benefit from a film on this topic — expectant parents who are considering breastfeeding. New parents going through similar experiences to those depicted, however, will recognize that they are not alone in their anxieties and complications.
My wife and I are among that last group. As of this writing, our daughter is nearly seven weeks old. My wife is breastfeeding her with great success, but this has required considerable effort and expense, including consultation, herbal supplements, and acupuncture, not to mention a heavy dose of determination. We watched the film together and realized how confusing it would be were we not already immersed in the world it explores.
Unlike The Business of Being Born, whose director (Abby Epstein) and executive producer (Ricki Lake) have placed their imprimatur on this film, Breastmilk has no agenda, seeking instead to provide an unbiased, almost impressionistic portrait of women who have chosen to breastfeed their children. While it’s admirable to present contrasting points of view, Ben-Ari jumbles these together devoid of context, so that viewers with little prior knowledge of the subject may have difficulty navigating the diversity of opinion.
For example, one new mother mentions that she is taking domperidone. Unless you are a lactation professional or a nursing mother experiencing difficulty with milk supply, you probably don’t know that this is a drug that can promote lactation (among other uses) but is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, although it is available in this country and widely used around the world. The film never explains what domperidone is or why it’s significant that this mother has gone to the trouble and expense of obtaining it.
It isn’t until one-third of the way through the film that scholar Bernice L. Hausman states cogently that lactation failure is a social problem, not a biological one, with a variety of economic and personal factors. Hausman appears again just before the closing credits to observe that our culture frowns on making mothers feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed, but does not make it easy for them to be successful. These statements could have been used to introduce and frame some of the stories presented, but instead they sink into the sea of voices. In addition, one nursing mother notes how difficult it is for poor women to breastfeed: if their milk is flowing, other obligations will probably prevent them from having the time to nurse and pump, and if it isn’t, they can’t afford the thousands of dollars it could very easily cost to make it work. But they can get formula through government programs such as WIC clinics (one of which is depicted in the film), which many of them do. Again, this is touched on but not presented in a way that helps the viewer make these connections.
Ben-Ari frequently allows her interviewees to ramble unedited for minutes at a time, until they begin to repeat themselves nervously. In one instance she films a subject driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, never cutting away to other footage, not even when the car goes through a tunnel and the screen goes black for several seconds. By wasting time on the wrong things, Ben-Ari ends up with a film that feels simultaneous padded and underdeveloped.
It’s surprising that Lake and Epstein didn’t exercise greater brand control in choosing to attach their names to this technically amateurish, uninformative film. Breastmilk has little of The Business of Being Born’s emotional impact or usefulness. A documentary that organizes anecdotal segments within the context of factual information about breastfeeding in the United States and around the world, along with an overview of the cottage industry of breast pumps, medical and herbal supplements, lactation consultation, and literature (that is, “the business of breastfeeding”) would go a long way toward educating the layperson on this important and fascinating topic. By providing little more than a hodgepodge of anecdotes of varying interest, Breastmilk does a disservice to the audience most likely to seek the film out.